An old story tells of a passerby admiring another man’s beautiful garden. Looking over the beautiful blooms, he remarked that God had certainly produced a wonderful garden, blessed with so many beautiful flowers. The gardener, who had been toiling for much of the day in the hot sun and apparently feeling that the admirer did not understand how much work went into producing such a beautiful garden said, “Maybe, but you should have seen it when God was taking care of it by Himself.”
Those who toil in garden and field know that the results simply do not happen on their own. Even in the Garden of Eden, the plants needed care and tending. (See Genesis 2:15) This is even more so today, because the ground will only bring forth abundantly with a great deal of work. This was the result of sin entering the world. (See Genesis 3:17-19) While plants seem to grow magically from the ground, the reality is that unless conditions are just right where the seed is sown, the plant will need a great deal of care to grow to its full potential. Even then, the work is not done.
A farmer who thought that because he could look out upon many acres of ripened grain, he could take it easy for the rest of his life would not be very wise. He must harvest the grain and set aside enough of the seed to plant for the next crop. He cannot store all of his grain from one season for the rest of his days. It will eventually go bad. Instead, he sells it so it can feed many people and not simply his family. Next planting season, he will sow seed for another harvest. He must perpetually renew the cycle in order to sustain his own family and others. In faithfully completing this cycle each year, he finds his reward as others bless him in turn for the blessing he provides to feed their families. Of course, if the farmer tried to sell spoiled grain, he would quickly lose the blessing from others as they would no longer come to him to feed their families. As it is with the farmer, so it is with the Christian.
The work to tend the Lord’s garden and produce a harvest is not without its hardships. Like the farmer seeking a harvest, the Christian worker must first prepare the soil to receive the seed. Jesus told us what success we can expect if the soil is not fertile. (See Luke 8:1-15) Many problems later in the growing season can be avoided by properly preparing the soil. Perhaps many issues that arise later within the new Christian’s experience can be prevented with proper preparation as well. Until the soil is prepared, sowing of the seed may be a waste. From Jesus’ parable in Luke 8, we can see that the soil is the human heart. Thus this initial step is the preparation of the human heart to make it receptive to the seed to be sown.
How do we know when the heart becomes receptive? Perhaps it is like our cats. A cat signals that he or she is receptive by lying on its back and exposing its tummy. The cat is saying it trusts you, as it delightedly waits for some tummy rubbing. It trusts you because experience has told it that you will be kind to it and it feels safe. We see from the gospels that even little children felt safe with Jesus and came to Him. Perhaps we can ask ourselves if people can feel safe entrusting their hearts to us? Have we demonstrated care and compassion? Just as animals respond to these things and come willingly to our call, people are more willing to come to us when they feel safe as well. There are many ways to do this. Needs-based ministry is certainly a formal method often considered. However, on a less formal level, being there to demonstrate our care and concern to our friends and families when they need us is a much simpler way of showing ourselves to be trustworthy.
When hearts are open in trust, the seed can be planted in fertile soil. That seed, according to the parable, is the Word of God. The parable also seems to make a case for a process that does not begin with the Word. That only comes once the heart is ready to receive it.
While there may be a place for directly confronting the lost with Scripture without prior preparation, perhaps that is the exception rather than the rule. The trust that makes a person receptive is a function of friendship, not doctrine. Doctrine does not produce trust, but trust can open the way for doctrine. Even the devil understands this simple principle. He knows that if he can get people to trust him, the way is open for his sophistries. Therefore it is important that Christians actively cultivate the soil of the heart so that the trust is not misplaced. We can only do this if we are perceived as trustworthy.
Once the Word can be sown in the fertile soil of the trusting human heart, the growing plant needs nurture. Water, light, and nutrients are necessary to produce healthy plants. Sometimes we are not happy with simply enabling the plant to grow but instead want to shape the new believers according to our perception of what they should be. We mistakenly treat the young plant as though it was destined to be a Bonsai or an Espalier. We try to force new believers into a form they were never intended to develop. This can be painful for them. The Spirit may be calling them to a ministry we cannot even envision and that we should be enabling. Instead, we sometimes persist in encouraging them to ignore that voice and listen to ours. This also creates more work for us than we were intended to shoulder. We were never meant to do the work of the Holy Spirit for someone else. God’s Spirit already owns that job. Once we accept that, we can instead enable the plant to grow to its true form. When it does, it will produce the harvest it was meant to.
When we enable spiritual growth in this way instead of manipulating it after our own image, miracles happen. Eventually, the plant will begin sowing seed as well. It does not have to think about ways to sow seed. It does it automatically. This is the nature of plants that have everything they need. They propagate more plants. However, if conditions are not right, many plants cannot propagate. We may enable their ministry by making sure they are surrounded with fertile soil. This can only happen in a trusting, safe environment. In our hearts, we know this is true for spiritual growth. If we do not feel safe in the church, we find it hard to feel that others would find the church safe. There will not be enough trust so the Word can be sown in their hearts.
We are also plants that are trying to grow into our spiritual, God-given destiny. We may understand from personal experience how difficult it is to deal with those who want to make us into images of themselves without regards to what God has called us to. As a result, we might not feel safe in the church, either. If we do not feel safe, we cannot find a way to help others feel safe. When that happens, the perpetual cycle of soil preparation, sowing, and nurturing to fruitfulness ceases, and a church can begin to die.
Those who want to force the spiritual experience of others often have the same effect as pouring herbicide on a fertile field. Eventually, the soil may become fertile again, but it will take time and much more effort than it did before. Once trust is destroyed, it is hard to rebuild it. It may even be impossible. And it can even go to multiple generations.
More people have likely turned their backs on the church because of not feeling safe and nurtured than because of disputes over doctrine. I cannot recount how many times I have visited non-attending members and they have recounted experiences where instead of finding nurture in the church, they found criticism and a controlling spirit.
We can understand this because it is not too hard to find examples in our own experience. Many of us know a church member that loves to tell others that they are worshiping the devil by celebrating Christmas, even though the church teaches no such thing. We probably know church members who condemn others for listening to contemporary Christian music, even though there is no prohibition on that in the baptismal vows. We even know those who teach that one must be vegetarian to enter heaven without seeing death, even though the Bible gives clear examples to the contrary, and vegetarianism is not a requirement to belong to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Some would have others believe that they must accept the idea of a grand conspiracy by the Illuminati or some other group. Some even promote the idea that you must support a particular politician or political agenda to be a Seventh-day Adventist. None of these things are listed as requirements for church membership either in the church’s Statement of Fundamental Beliefs or in the baptismal contract. If we support such things, we should recognize we may be creating an image of Adventism after our own understanding, an image that is powerless to save anyone.
If we want to enjoy a perpetual cycle of ministry, a cycle where we can prepare human hearts to trust the Word, a cycle where the Word can be nurtured in the heart so it can grow to sow seed and also produce a harvest, we need to avoid these things that poison the soil and destroy trust. If we present a strange gospel of conspiracies and political intrigues, we will be like a farmer providing spoiled grain to his neighbors. They will cease to come to be fed and will go elsewhere to feed themselves and their families. God will still feed them, but we won’t be a part of it. When the grain is spoiled, we will not even be able to feed ourselves.
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